Bangkok: Thailand`s rival political camps launched a last-minute appeal for votes on the eve of a hard-fought election seen as crucial to the future of the kingdom after years of often bloody unrest.
About 170,000 police are to be deployed to protect polling stations for the tense vote, which comes little more than a year after Bangkok was rocked by its worst civil violence in decades.
Polls show the main opposition Puea Thai Party, allied to fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, enjoying a lead over current leader Abhisit Vejjajiva`s ruling Democrats ahead of Sunday`s election.
The two main parties were wrapping up their campaigns on Saturday with election convoys through central Bangkok. Many voters were leaving the city to return to their hometowns to cast ballots.
Thaksin, who was ousted in a 2006 coup and now lives in Dubai to escape a jail term for corruption, picked his youngest sister to run in his place for prime minister in a move that has reinvigorated the opposition.
Many think Thaksin will continue to call the shots if his party wins the vote, and its campaign slogan -- "Thaksin thinks, Puea Thai does" -- appears to leave little doubt.
Yingluck Shinawatra, tipped to become Thailand`s first female prime minister, is a political novice widely seen as the political proxy of her older brother, who describes his sibling as his "clone".
"Please give a chance to this woman to serve the country," Yingluck told a huge crowd late Friday at a campaign rally at a Bangkok stadium. "Please give a chance to this woman to bring reconciliation back to this country."
Her brother is still adored by many rural and working class voters for his populist policies such as cheap healthcare while in power, but is reviled by the ruling elite who see him as corrupt and a threat to the revered monarchy.
"As long as Thaksin thinks, Puea Thai has to do it -- to find ways to give Thaksin back his seized 46 billion baht ($1.5 billion)," Abhisit told his own campaign rally late Friday.
"The country cannot move forward. Puea Thai does everything for one person," added Abhisit, who has urged voters "to get rid of the poison of Thaksin."
Last year Thailand`s Supreme Court confiscated more than half of the former telecoms tycoon`s wealth, after ruling he abused his power while in office.
Parties linked to Thaksin, the former owner of Manchester City football club, have won the most seats in the past four elections, but the courts reversed the results of the last two polls, angering his supporters.
The ex-premier remains a hugely divisive figure in Thailand, where he faces a raft of criminal charges including terrorism -- an accusation linked to mass opposition protests by his "Red Shirt" supporters last year.
More than 90 people, mostly civilians, died in a series of clashes between the mostly unarmed demonstrators and soldiers firing live rounds.
The opposition has proposed an amnesty for convicted politicians if it wins the election -- a move apparently aimed at bringing Thaksin home.
But many doubt the Bangkok-based elite in government, military and palace circles would allow him to return a free man.
The royals` staunch military backers loom large over all elections in a country that has seen 18 actual or attempted coups since the monarchy ceded absolute power in 1932 in favour of a parliamentary system.
Thailand`s Western allies are pressing the nation to allow democracy to run its course. US State Department spokesman Mark Toner on Friday called on Thailand to ensure the vote is "free and fair."